The mind is confidently incorrect

A study of mastery and fear

This is part of a short conversational series on mastery. I’m breaking them into parts to trick myself into shipping. At the end, I’ll likely combine them into one longer post.

  1. Mastery is about what you see, not what you do. It is entirely about seeing what is there.
  2. For mastery, improvement of the process is the goal. It must be, because mastery itself is never associated with any particular outcome.


I’ve been rock climbing lately. It’s been teaching me a lot about the distinction between me and my mind.

I climbed a 5.10b recently - an intermediate climb. I didn’t know that when I got on the wall. My friend Will, who is a great coach, off-handedly suggested it after I crushed a 5.9, a beginner climb.

As I climbed higher and higher, some handholds began to seem absolutely impossible to reach. I would say to myself, There is literally no way I can reach that. I’d stick my arm out as far as I dared, scrabble and fail. My hands would start to feel slippery. I’d think, I don’t really need to do this. My right hip kinda hurts. Is my harness on right? I’m pretty high up.

Then, Will and Sara would shout from below and point out a tiny pink foothold just a few inches above my left ankle. I had no idea it was there. As far as I was concerned, it didn’t exist. It popped into existence the moment I was made aware of it. And lo, as I stepped up onto it, that impossible handhold was suddenly within reach.

That move was always possible. My mind made it impossible.

There is literally no way I can reach that. What a confidently incorrect assessment about reality.


The most difficult part of the climb came at the 80% mark. At this point, my mind was telling me I was crazy. I looked down. There is no way I can climb this. I can try again next time I come. If I fall, that would be an incredibly idiotic waste of my time and potential. Man your harness really might not be on right. Here’s an image of you flipping over and here’s another of your broken body on the ground.

I had already bailed a few times on the climb. This was going to be my last attempt. And I realized that my mind was filtering my awareness for my own survival.


Death is our “advisor.” In other words, awareness of our mortality is a helpful reality check. It reminds us that every action matters… Death reminds us that we have no time to waste… The question, then, is how can we use the unavoidable truth of our mortality to empower us rather than cripple and terrify us?

— Arno Ilgner, The Rock Warrior's Way

I think there is a distinction between true survival fear, and fears that are just Steven Pressfield’s Resistance.

Survival fears guide action in some way. They are clearly addressable by a course of action. Resistance fears are mental flailing. They waste energy.

An example from climbing:

Survival fear: On this downclimb I could slip and fall. I should ensure my toes press deeply into the footholds to create friction, and that I follow the three-point rule.

Resistance fear: Holy fuck, I shouldn't do this, I could slip and fall. Why am I up here? It's pretty steep. You should stop. Stay up there for a second. I'M STUCK THOUGH AHHH

Applied to building a consulting practice, for instance:

Survival fear: My consulting page should clearly state what my value is to clients. Perhaps even as a $ amt. Otherwise, they may not care and move on.

Resistance fear: What if I come across as too vague? Too bold? What if no one cares? Who am I to offer my services, man. No one is gonna buy this. I should read more. I should stop. I'm not ready yet.

Your fear of The Thing is not The Thing. It’s not even helpful.

(Your shame at not doing something helpful also isn’t The Thing either.)


My harness was on correctly. I wouldn’t flip over unless I froze up. We had safety-checked the knots and belay system before I began to climb. None of the fears my mind was screaming at me were true survival fears. I began to grunt to myself, “it’s possible, it’s possible,” to force my awareness away from my mind.


The secret to mastery is to know how to take appropriate action in relation to what’s occurring to produce desired results… What we don’t notice is that what we experience doesn’t match what’s occurring.

— Peter Ralston, The Art of Mastery

I finished the climb. I slammed my hands at the top and breathlessly shouted “TAKE,” and without even waiting for confirmation, “LOWER!”

As Sara lowered me, I let relief wash over me (especially as I got closer to the ground). But as I gazed back up the route, I was surprised to hear my mind once again: There’s no way you can climb that.

Right after I just did! I had just smashed that climb and there was my mind again, telling me the route wasn’t possible. Its assessment was made based on a series of beliefs and assumptions about myself and reality. It was simply incorrect.

I am not my mind, and my mind is not reality. My mind is a filter on reality. It’s a pretty useful filter most of the time - it keeps my awareness focused on what’s most likely to keep me alive and safe. State persistence.

But what my mind sees is not all there is. And I believe the process of mastery is about learning to expand awareness beyond what the mind sees, to see what is actually there.


Finishing the 5.10b climb!